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Breaking up is impossible to do in California

As Tim Draper has learned...

August 20, 2018

1:59 PM

20 August 2018

1:59 PM

The People must be made to understand that voting is a privilege, not a right, and if they continue to vote wrongly this privilege will be revoked.

OK, we’re not there yet. But what are citizens supposed to do if the system burkes in its cradle every honest effort at reform, at cutting an impersonal Behemoth down to a human-scale size, at revivifying an American ideal of democratic self-government that is at best moribund in our lorn and lonely and fitfully loony land?

Consider the recent outrage in California. Following a well-trod, historically marked path, over 400,000 Californians signed petitions requesting that a measure to fission their state (population: 40 million) into three smaller and more governable states be placed on this November’s statewide ballot.

California entered the union in 1850 under the assumption that it would, in time, be divided into two, three, or even more states, for its size and diversity made a mockery of the idea and practice of self-government.

The issue has always floated at the periphery of state politics, and in our age of gargantuan and unresponsive institutions, it has achieved a renewed vigour. Likewise, in my own state of New York, some of the supplest minds and most colorful personages — William Randolph Hearst, Norman Mailer, Bella Abzug — have advocated an amicable (well, cool but civil) divorce between upstate and downstate. (I wrote about these and other American secession movements in my 2010 book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire, which, as is my oeuvre’s wont, cunningly avoided bestsellerdom.)

The conceptualiser and funder of the Three Californias initiative was venture capitalist Tim Draper, who expended upwards of $1 million in the petition-gathering effort. The press, which fears heterodox ideas as a vampire shrinks from the cross, usually identifies Draper as ‘billionaire Tim Draper’, whereas Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and their fellow malefactors of great wealth are ID’d as benefactors of humanity.

An earlier and better Draper initiative that failed to make the statewide ballot in 2016 called for Six Californias: a geographically and culturally cohesive sextet. Yes, they would produce ten additional U.S. senators, mostly (but not entirely) Democratic, but really: must the 15 million Latinos of the Golden State forever be represented in the world’s greatest deliberative body by that dotardly doyenne of privilege Dianne Feinstein?

A tripartite California seemed more plausible this time around, so Draper & Co., playing by the system’s rules, qualified the measure for the ballot.

Ah, but a funny thing happened on the way to the statewide forum. Last month, the California Supreme Court, acting on a challenge from a Sacramento-based lobby, struck the Three Californias initiative from the ballot on grounds so vague — it was concerned about the ‘validity’ of the proposition’s ‘revisions’ — as to beggar belief.

California will remain a unitary state — no matter what its citizens want.

I asked Tim Draper about the California Supreme Court’s preemptive strike against democracy.

Draper pronounces himself ‘shocked by the arbitrary action of six lawyers’: that is, the robed archons of the California Supreme Court. (Half of the justices were appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, an erstwhile decentralist whose father, the hack Governor Pat Brown, endorsed the division of California into two states after leaving office.)

‘These six judges should be ashamed that they squelched the opportunity for citizens to vote,’ continues Draper. ‘It was the action of political thugs, completely undemocratic and un-American.’

So will the court’s trashcanning of this initiative serve as a model for establishment pushback against other reformist or populist campaigns? To preclude the possibility that the electorate might vote ‘wrongly’, will our superiors simply take away our choice?

‘Their arbitrary action was a dark day for democracy in America,’ replies Draper. ‘It sent a bad message to the people. It said, “The bureaucrat status quo is in power and too bad if you don’t like it!” Citizens have no ability to reform anymore, because the bunions (bureaucrat unions) can squelch it. Bunions own the courts.’

This podia-trope — bunions — may gain a foothold.

Draper is mum on whether or not he will continue to press for the devolution of power in California, by this or other means.  As he is one of the handful of the politically involved super-rich who pursue something other than endless self-aggrandisement or the achievement of ever greater power over the fellaheen, I surely hope he does not withdraw from the field.

But could you blame him if he does?

Thomas Jefferson — remarkable how seldom his name pops up these days, isn’t it? — instructed posterity that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish any government that does not derive its power from the consent of the governed. If alterations like 3 Californias are off the table, then where does that leave us?

Bill Kauffman is the author of 11 books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette (Holt), Ain’t My America (Metropolitan), and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green).

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